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Duffy Lee's top salesman

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG -- Ed Duffy's a salesman ... always has been, always will be.

For 34 years -- most at the management level -- Duffy sold refreshments in the wine and spirits industry. For the past three years, Duffy has sold Lee County to developers, to government officials, to corporations and retailers looking for a place to expand.

When Duffy decided to run for a seat on the Lee County Commission, he shocked his family -- especially Janie, his beloved wife of 58 years in April -- and most others who knew him well. Duffy and politics? Just didn't mix.

But it soon became apparent that the man was a natural.

"I mean no disrespect to anyone who was on the board at that time, but by his second year on the Commission, Mr. Duffy had assumed the leadership role," Lee Commissioner Rick Muggridge said. "He took the lead during the '08 budget process, and from that point on it was obvious that he was the true leader of the board, whether he was elected to that position or not."

Lee Commissioners officially chose Duffy as their chairman for 2009, and he has taken to the role with the passion and energy of contemporaries less than half his 77 years.

"I've had many opportunities to be with Mr. Duffy out in public, and we've never been anywhere where he didn't know several people and go up and greet them," County Administrator Alan Ours said. "Everyone likes him; he has an outgoing, positive personality.

"It's important, I think, that elected officials be approachable, and Mr. Duffy is every bit of that and then some. He represents this county very well."

During his tenure, Duffy has pushed for legislation that eliminated costly commercial and industrial impact fees in the county; he's advocated for continued funding for and utilization of the county-owned Grand Island golf course; he pushed to locate fire/EMS stations on U.S. Highways 82 and 19; and he fought to bring some $5 million in infrastructure improvements out 82, all measures that drew opposition on the board.

But he prevailed.

"My views and Mr. Duffy's are different a lot of times," Commissioner Dennis Roland said. "I agree with him on a lot of issues, but I disagree with him on just as many others. Still I know he will always do what he feels in his heart is in the best interest of Lee County."

That, perhaps, best sums up the essence of Ed Duffy, the man and the politician. ("Oh, you can believe, he's the same man no matter where he is," fellow Commissioner Betty Johnson says.) In his private and his political lives, Duffy follows his heart.

That heart fell for Janie, then an 18-year-old ticket-seller for Theatre Albany, at first sight. The young Southern beauty fell just as hard for the Massachusetts born-and-raised Air Force tech order specialist, who was stationed then at Turner Air Base in Albany.

"He was just the sexiest thing I'd ever seen in his pegged pants and narrow belt," Janie laughs. "Of course, I did play hard to get when I met him. He asked me for a date on a particular night and I said no. So he asked me out the next night ... and I said yes."

Not long after, Janie and Ed became man and wife. Soon son Paul came along, and 18 months behind him daughter Terri. The offspring have given their parents six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with a third on the way.

"We've been lucky; we've got some really great kids and grandkids," Janie says with pride. "And it was luck because we were just kids ourselves raising those kids. I was 18 and Ed was 19 when we married.

"One of my friends always tells me 'I don't know how you Duffys do it, but there's not a throw-away in the bunch of you.' We've just been fortunate."

After Duffy's four years of service in the Air Force, he struggled for a period, trying to find a job that would allow him to take care of his young family. He landed a sales position with wine and spirits distributor McKesson & Robbins. And he flourished.

Impressive sales numbers landed Duffy a position as vice president/general manager for McKesson's Georgia division -- meaning a move to Atlanta -- but in 1978 he came back to Albany to oversee company sales in the southern half of the state when McKesson divided its territory.

A year later, though, the budding executive was diagnosed with colon cancer, and he spent the next five years on long-term disability, battling for his life. The company chose to retire him when he finally was given a clean bill of health.

"They probably thought the business had passed me by in those five years away," Duffy said. "It was a tough fight, but I knew I was ready to get back to work."

A week after his "retirement," Duffy got a call from Sans Souci Distributors in Albany, which hired him on as marketing manager. He worked with the company until it was sold in 1991, and again he retired.

"That was probably the most challenging job, and the most content I've ever been in a job," he says.

Duffy and son Paul bought the Winery in 1996, holding onto the business for most of a decade before selling it in 2004. The suddenly idle Duffy, who'd worked his whole life, stunned those who know him when he announced he'd decided to give politics a try.

"It was a complete shock; he'd never been involved in politics in any way," Janie says. "And while it amazed me, he almost worked me and everyone else in the family to death getting elected. With Ed, there's no halfway; he does everything he does full-speed ahead."

Duffy said his decision to seek a position on the Lee Commission was based on one key factor: communications.

"Bottom line: There was a lack of communication between the county government and its citizens," he said.

That's why since he's been chair of the commission, Duffy has introduced such concepts as a monthly newsletter outlining actions taken by the board and a public forum session at each commission meeting that allows citizens to air grievances about any issue that concerns them.

"Mr. Duffy is very constituent service-oriented," Ours said. "When any resident of Lee County calls him about an issue, he's like a bulldog and will not let the issue go until it is taken care of. It's a great credit to him that he does not take information from a citizen and blow it off. Every call receives priority attention."

Duffy has been criticized on some fronts for his dogged quest to find new commercial and retail development for the county. He's traveled to North Carolina, to Washington, to Atlanta, and he's met face-to-face with developers and government leaders who have the power or the funding to help in his pursuit.

He makes no apologies for such efforts.

"I'm a commercial hawk; I make no bones about that," Duffy said. "But there's a very good reason. Of all the money brought into Lee County, we retain only between 17 and 21 cents of each dollar. Most counties keep better than 50 percent of their citizens' earnings.

"The bottom line is if we don't bring in more commercial growth and sales tax dollars in the county, it's only a matter of time before we have to raise the millage rate. As chairman, I am going to do as much as possible to bring more money into this county."

Duffy said the fiscal conservatism that he embraces is shared by the board, and he notes that such significant projects as extensions of Cedric Street, Old Leesburg Road, Robert B. Lee Drive and Forrester Parkway, the restoration of the T. Page Tharp Governmental Building and the addition of fire/EMS stations on U.S. 82 and 19 near Smithville in the northern portion of the county have been done without raising taxes.

"I'm proud of what we've accomplished as a board," Commissioner Bill Williams said. "I feel that we've done a lot of good for the county, and a lot of that is because of the leadership of Mr. Duffy. The county is fortunate to have him, and I'm proud to work with him."

Johnson echoes her colleague's sentiment, adding, "The most important thing about Ed is that he tries to be fair to all citizens of the county, not just those in his district."

And even Roland, who said he felt Duffy used his power to remove a qualified member of the Utilities Authority board and replace him with someone more in line with his way of thinking, acknowledges that Duffy's leadership is vital to the Commission.

"He's a great spokesman for the county, and even if I don't agree with him on some issues, I understand that this is politics," Roland said. "And I know he believes what he's doing is what's best for the county."

During a conversation, Duffy confirms that he plans to run for a second four-year term in office. He says the work's not over.

"We're just getting started," he said. "I want to continue to work on behalf of the citizens of Lee County to make this community an even better one. We've got issues to address, and you can believe we're going to address them."

Spoken like a true salesman.